You can tell a lot about what dogs are feeling by watching their tails. Just by looking at the position and movement of the tail, you can often tell what dogs are thinking.

There is some real communication in how your dog wags their tail, but the tail has another vital role in communicating. Every time your dog moves their tail, it acts like a fan and spreads their natural scent around them. One of their most important odours comes from the anal glands, two sacs under the tail that contain a smelly liquid that is as unique among dogs as fingerprints are to us.

The tail is also important as a means of counterbalance when the dog is carrying out complicated movements such as leaping or climbing. Dogs that run at great speeds often have thin tails they use as a counterbalance when making turns. Other dogs use their tails as rudders when swimming. And tails can even be used for insulation! Nordic and Arctic breeds have bushy or plumed tails with long dense fur. When lying down they may pull their tail over their faces to keep out the cold.

There’s a lot of purpose in your dog’s tail!
An old joke about wagging tails goes like this…A young boy is afraid to pet a dog, an adult says, ‘He’s friendly, look he’s wagging his tail’. The boy responds, ‘yeah but he’s barking and growling – I don’t know which end to believe!’

This poor excuse for a joke contains a lot of truth, because a wagging tail does not necessarily mean a dog is friendly, it is important to observe the rest of the dog’s body language… So, if a wagging tail does not always indicate friendliness, what does it mean?

A dog’s tail position and motion is incorporated as a component of a complex system of body language that domestic dogs use, along with verbal clues such as barking, growling or whining, in order to communicate. A wagging tail indicates excitement or agitation, but whether the dog means it as an invitation to play, or to warn another dog or person to stay back, depends on other body language.

A slowly wagging tail that curves down and back up into a “U” usually indicates a relaxed and playful dog. If their ears are erect and pointing forward and they are in the classic ‘play bow’ position, they are inviting you/dogs to play.

A tail held higher, whether wagging or not, indicates arousal and/or increased interest in something. If the end of the tail arches over the back and is twitching, you may be faced with a potentially aggressive dog.

Tail position and movement is simply used as a social indicator for other living things. Dogs generally don’t wag their tails when they are alone. For example, if you pour your dog a bowl of food, they may wag their tail excitedly at the prospect of eating. But if they find their bowl already filled – without anyone around – they will usually not wag their tail. They may still be happy to eat, but there is no one around with whom to communicate their happiness.


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